Child poverty and poor parental mental health are having a significant negative impact on the wellbeing of the next generation.
New research has confirmed that children living in poverty and with caregivers who experience mental health problems are at higher risk of longer term social and emotional development issues and poor mental health.
The large-scale study, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, explored the combined effect of both paternal and maternal caregiver mental health alongside poverty, throughout childhood, and how it affected children at the point of transition into adulthood.
The study team, led by academics from Liverpool University and including health experts from the NIHR Applied Research Collaboration (ARC) North East and North Cumbria (NENC), used long term data from 10,500 children from the nationally representative UK Millenium Cohort Study (MCS) – which is following the lives of around 19,000 young people born across the UK between 2000 and 2002.
More than half of the children in the group (53%) had some experience of poverty and poor parental or caregiver mental health, whilst growing up. The research estimated that 40% of socioemotional behaviour problems in that group when they reached the age of 17 – such as managing emotions and coping with difficulties – were caused by exposure to poor parental mental health and poverty in childhood. Children in this group were also more likely to experience cognitive disabilities by the age of 17.
In the study, over 10% of children experienced both persistent poverty and persistent poor mental health in both caregivers up to the age of 14 years. This group were four times more likely to experience adolescent socioemotional behavioural problems and had double the risk of having mental health problems at the age of 17 years.
Supporting author Professor Eileen Kaner, Director of the NIHR Applied Research Collaboration (ARC) North East and North Cumbria (NENC), said:
“Our findings have significant implications for how we plan and develop policies to support the mental health and wellbeing of our future generations in the UK, particularly when we have a deterioration in adult mental health, and rising levels of child poverty.
“We already understand that poverty and poor mental health can go hand in hand; we know that the social impacts of poverty, including family stress, low quality housing, and home environment, may increase the risk of parental mental health problems, and that families living with mental health issues are more likely to drift into or remain in poverty.
“It is even more concerning that we can now see these issues contributing substantially to the burden of adolescents’ health and development, and that this is likely to have implications for years to come.
“Policies that act together to address child poverty and parental mental health problems, rather than focusing on single issues, could dramatically improve the health and wellbeing of teenagers and young adults in the UK. Tackling these issues also has the potential to lead to lifetime improvements in earnings across these adolescents of equivalent to around £6.5bn.”
Lead author Dr Nicholas Kofi Adjei from the University of Liverpool said:
“In the UK, there are concerns about the deterioration in adult mental health and child poverty is also rising. More than half of children growing up in the UK are persistently exposed to either one or both of poor caregiver mental health and family poverty. Our study finds that the combination of these exposures is strongly associated with adverse health outcomes in the next generation.”
This work was funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Policy Research Programme (ORACLE: OveRcoming Adverse ChiLdhood Experiences) and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Applied Research Collaboration South London (NIHR ARC South London) at King’s College Hospital NHS Foundation Trust. It was supported by the NIHR Applied Research Collaboration (ARC) North East and North Cumbria (NENC).